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Menes, J.B. (1971). Children's Reactions to the Death of a Parent: A Review of the Psychoanalytic Literature. J. Amer. Psychoanal. Assn., 19:697-719.

(1971). Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 19:697-719

Children's Reactions to the Death of a Parent: A Review of the Psychoanalytic Literature

Jill Barbara Menes

SUMMARY

The psychoanalytic literature dealing with the nature of children's reactions to object loss by death has been reviewed. A nearly unanimous position has been found to exist on this question. This consensus position is based upon the firmly held conclusion that children, in comparison to adults, do not pass through mourning when the latter is defined, following Freud, as including the gradual and painful emotional detachment from the inner representation of the person who has died. There is also wide agreement that a particular set of responses tends to occur in children who experience the death of one of their parents. These reactions include unconscious and sometimes conscious denial of the reality of the parent's death; rigid screening out of all affective responses connected with the parent's death; marked increase in identification with and idealization of the dead parent; decrease in self-esteem; feelings of guilt; and persistent unconscious fantasies of an ongoing

relationship or reunion with the dead parent. These responses are viewed as being directed toward avoiding the acceptance of the parent's death and the necessity to make the radical reorganization in object attachments that such an acceptance would require.

Only two major contributors to the childhood parent-loss area hold that mourning is to be found in children. It is significant that even these two, Kliman and Furman, claim to observe mourning in children only under exceptional circumstances, usually involving active clinical efforts to facilitate a mourning process through such measures as psychoanalytic treatment of the child and/or intensive counseling of significant adults in the child's life. Furthermore, these writers focus on promoting the expression of sad affect, and do not appear to claim that the critical process of internal emotional decathexis actually occurs in children. Bowlby, who earlier held the view that the reaction of children to separation from the mother was a genuine mourning process, has modified, if not reversed, this view to conform with the consensus position that the reaction to parental death in childhood is not mourning but rather a complex series of defensive phenomena aimed at denying the reality of the event.

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